What on earth makes these animals so fearless? Sea lions blow bubbles in your face as if to mock your underwater ineptitude. Blue-footed boobies blithely stand and nest on trails, forcing you to walk around them. Birds don’t scatter in your presence and turtles don’t swim away. The cormorants are flightless and couldn’t escape even if they wanted to, while slow-moving marine iguanas saunter across sandy beaches, secure in the knowledge that they’re not going to be your next meal. This is what it’s like to grow up in an environment lacking natural predators, to never have been hunted by humans.
Lying in the Pacific Ocean and straddling the equator about 1000km west of the South American continent, the Galapagos are a province of Ecuador consisting of thirteen main island and six smaller islands. Famously the site where Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution took shape, the Galapagos Islands are a living laboratory of evolutionary oddities and biological wonders. Where else can you see penguins in the tropics, blood-drinking finches, iguanas that swim, giant 225-kilograms tortoises, frigate birds with inflated air sacs that look as if they’ve swallowed a red beach ball, and Sally Lightfoot crabs that spit saltwater from an outlet near their eye?
The Galapagos National Park, which takes in about ninety percent of the islands’ land area and most of the surrounding ocean waters, has strict controls in place to protect this amazingly unique habitat and all visitors must be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide. The islands are served by a variety of vessels of varying sizes and types offering tours ranging from three to fifteen days. The longer trips will generally give you more variety by allowing you to experience the outer islands. For the best experience, look for operators with a strong educational and conservation-minded approach. The sixteen smaller passenger yachts give you flexibility in shore access and a more personalized approach.
Once on the tour, your best bet is to get on the islands early in the day for the best light to take photos and to find the celebrated local animals at their peak of activity. You’ll also find that the trails are less crowded in the early morning hours. A ten-passenger panga or Zodiac, an inflatable craft lowered from the transom of the yacht, will bring you from your vessel to land. Trails are short and most days involve no more than 5km of walking. Mid-morning or afternoon snorkeling forays will give you opportunities to swim with sea lions-always a highlight-and encounter other marine species like Galapagos penguins, golden rays, damsel fish, parrot fish and goldrim surgeonfish. Always close at hand will be a knowledgeable naturalist to tell you all you’d like to know about everything that you see.
As you travel from island to island you, like Darwin, will be able to see how each species has adapted, or evolved, to suit its environment. Though the beak adaptations of finches particularly fascinated Darwin, chances are you’ll find a giant tortoise-endemic to nine of the islands with minor subspecies variations from island to island-more compelling subject matter.You’ll also discover the unique nature of each island, some of which are largely flat and others that have volcanic features, creating a weather patterns and foliage. The outer horseshoe-shaped island of Genovesa is home to red-footed boobies, while blue-footed boobies are found throughout the archipelago. Fernandina is the best place to find well-populated colonies of large marine iguanas as well as flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins, both of which are also found on Isabela. The outer island of Espanola is one of the few places in the world where you can find breeding colonies of waved albatross, the only tropical albatross.
For all their fearlessness and accessibility, the wildlife of the Galapagos do not live free of threats. The greatest environmental threats to the Galapagos Islands come from non-native species such as rats, pigs, goats and cats. These introduced species tend to reproduce quickly and often overtake the habitat or eat the eggs of native species. Although the islands have over five hundred native and endemic species, there are now over seven hundred introduced species. Skyrocketing tourism and a human population explosion, are also taking their toll on native species habitats, prompting the National Park to implement sweeping changes to promote sustainable development for the islands’ growing resident population, regulate tourism, mange fishing in area waters, and shut down or restrict some site that have suffered from overuse so that habitat restoration can take place. These restrictions, along with ongoing conservation and research efforts, will enable future generations to enjoy the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands and witness evolution in progress.